When Joie was killed in Yosemite in 1999, donations poured in to NatureBridge in her honor. She was a bright light, beloved by the entire NatureBridge staff and anyone in the broader community that knew her. With all of these donations, a committee was formed to create an event that would capture the spirit of Joie and turn it into a lasting legacy.
Heather was part of that small, impassioned committee tasked with designing this event. After much conversation, planning and consideration, the Armstrong Scholars program was born: a 10-day hike into the Yosemite backcountry along a specified route, filled with bonding, open communication, strenuous trails, games and deep interpersonal connection. Young women ages 15-18 could apply to take part, the trip would be led by two female educators and it would — everyone hoped — evoke Joie in order to transform the lives of everyone involved.
“There’s a framework that was created by the committee, and one of the sections within it is called ‘The Essence of Joie,’” says Kim. “Who she is is woven into everything the leaders do.”
“We wanted to create more themes for the curriculum that would stand the test of time rather than strict rules. Make it adaptable and able to be whatever was needed in the future,” says Heather.
Eventually, Heather and Nicole DeJonge (now Nicole Benter) were chosen to lead the very first Armstrong Scholars trip in 2000. Two years later, Kim became part of the third co-leading team of the program, which she went on to manage for 14 years.
The first night of the inaugural program in the summer of 2000, families dropped off the girls at Crane Flat in Yosemite, a campsite close to rolling green meadows and just a few miles from Merced Grove’s giant sequoias. Heather got a chance to meet some parents and welcome the group. It didn’t take long for them to gel.
“I remember the parents had all gone and we were doing dishes after dinner; music was playing and it just erupted into a dance party. We were already having fun on day one,” she says.
From there, that first Armstrong trip became legendary. Many of the traditions associated with the program today were present in that maiden voyage into Yosemite. Symbolic beads, joyous singing, disco shirts, solos — it can sometimes feel like another language has been created within the biosphere of the experience.
“The disco shirts are these beautiful, colorful, bright shirts that we give to the girls because they represent Joie’s sense of fun and flair,” says Kim. “They would put them on when they wanted to celebrate or had a big challenge ahead of them. They mean so much that many participants would wear them later in life when they needed strength. My  co-leader, Sarah Davies, put her disco shirt on when she gave birth to her first child!”